Alex Haley, an Appalachian Hero


By Steve Dean

The late Alex Haley is internationally known and revered.  His masterwork Roots has been translated into 37 languages. When it first aired on network television in 1977 Roots was viewed by some 140 million people in the United States. The total population of the country was 220 million. The author still has admirers across the globe. 

What could the Museum of Appalachia possibly say or do that could measure up to the legacy of Alex Haley?  How is a man born and reared in West Tennessee a hero in the mountains of the eastern part of the state? I can assure you that this man became a genuine hero to the Appalachian culture and an icon in this area’s history. In fact, the reputation of this place, the Museum of Appalachia, owes much to Alex Haley…and the most sincere thing we as members of the non-profit board can do is to simply say “thank you”.  

Then Governor Lamar Alexander, a native of Blount County, introduced Alex Haley to John Rice Irwin some forty years ago and the rest is history.  Alex’s enthusiasm for the Museum of Appalachia, in essence, put the John Rice’s creation on the map.  Suddenly people like Oprah, Brook Shields, and countless other movie celebrities and media types soon came to visit the Irwin family farm in tiny Norris, Tennessee. A film of the Museum of Appalachia band played in the 360-degree theater at Disney World, network primetime TV programs used the cabins as settings and artifacts on display, and the list goes on. All of this over 30 years before social media and decades before the IPhone made it possible to connect instantly to the rest of the world.  A great part of this interest came from the power of Alex Haley’s reputation and his enthusiasm for the Appalachian way of life. “Find the good and praise it” was Alex’s favorite saying and he lived up to it. 

If you were to ask Americans to describe someone from rural Appalachia in the 19th century, only a few might use terms like “intelligent” or “resourceful.”  Alex knew better and spread the word about a people capable of making much of little. 

I want to pass along my personal insights.  I first met Alex Haley through a mutual friend in 1984.  Alex, who served on the board of the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation in Los Angeles, arranged for a grant to fund a documentary about the Museum.  Then, at the height of his influence and fame, he could have employed any number of talented companies in California to take charge of production.  He did not.  Instead, he sought out an East Tennessean to do the job… and somehow contacted me. 

The two of us typically conducted our discussions over lunch.  In hindsight, I so wish that I could relive those precious moments and then record his words of wit and wisdom for all posterity.  Alex was so gracious — and funny!  He and his old friend, George Sims, who was always present in our several meetings, often talked about their exploits of the past.  Inevitably, all of us enjoyed the good laughs.  When, however, Alex learned that I was a product of the Appalachian culture, I don’t think it mattered if I knew which end of camera to use, he wanted me to produce the documentary.   

Alex, the celebrity, as a part of the initial interviews, especially wanted to hear about my family.  So, I explained that my paternal grandfather, Sylvester Patton Dean, lived to be 94, but never learned to drive a car.  Everyone called him “Major.”  He rode a horse for his travels until he was 92…and only quit because he kept falling off when the horse spooked. His universe was no more than a 10-mile radius from his homeplace….  Alex also asked about my father who walked out of these mountains to find work and was overjoyed to get a job that paid .26 cents an hour! 

Of course, Alex, who was well acquainted with a lack of material wealth, shared his own childhood memories.   He recalled the unique seating arrangement at his all-black church.  The older women in the congregation ruled, always perched in a section in the front row.  Alex meticulously described how they dressed and carried themselves. And, how he feared their angry looks if he got a little boisterous during the sermon.  The conversations in those meetings with Alex will remain with me forever.  

One of Alex’s favorite exhibits here at the museum was the Steve Parkey blacksmith shop. It sits in the middle of the grounds.  Steve Parkey was an African-American and John Rice Irwin had acquired the artifacts upon Parkey’s death in 1978.  

The Parkey family lived in a remote section of Hancock County known as Rebel hollow.  Steve Parkey’s grandfather, Newton,  had been born into slavery, but the Parkeys became land owners.  For all Appalachian people…the acquisition of land changes their life’s trajectory.  With land ownership comes the possibility of independence and self-determination.  You often hear the term that someone was a subsistence farmer as if it were a sentence to life-long poverty, ignorance, and indolence…and nothing could be further from the truth.  

Subsistence farmers such as the Parkeys made it possible for a family to survive and, ultimately, thrive.  With a piece of land and nearly nothing else except resolve and brain power,  they create shelter, clothing, and food for their family.  In my opinion subsistence farmers are brilliant.

See this big circular wooden thing in the center of the stage.  It’s called a lathe and Steve Parkey’s father William, built that by hand.  William was born in 1865.  With such a device as that and a real understanding of the geometry involved you could create the circular hub of a wagon wheel …and then move on to the rest of the wagon.  A wagon is complicated combination of wood and metal working skills and if you don’t get the round part right, the wagon is not going to work.

I assure you William Parkey did not learn how to build this in trade school, and didn’t get a kit in the mail from Amazon.  He no doubt saw one in use and figured out how to build it on his own.  That takes both brain power and courage.  And when he was successful, his services as a wheelwright became a valuable asset to everyone in Rebel hollow, no matter their skin color.  Steve Parkey embraced and carried on his father’s work. 

The Parkeys were true mountaineers.  Most people in this country don’t think of African-Americans as Appalachian mountaineers.  Yet the Parkeys are proof they existed and they flourished.

As an aside, I must mention my familiarity with the African American mountaineers of Hoop Creek in Claiborne County.  The patriarch of that community was Phillip Brooks, a former slave, who after earning his freedom became a landowner and a Baptist minister.  Subsistence farmers in this area learned construction of all kinds, agriculture, animal husbandry, food preservation, dairy herd management, textile manufacturing, and child-rearing.  In other words, these resourceful people, in their own way, exhibited a unique form of brilliance at the survival level.  

When they weren’t allowed to attend the Claiborne County schools because of their skin color, they somehow transported their children all the way to Morristown just to learn the three Rs.  Don’t ever sell them short, because their lives were lived to the fullest, with joy and accomplishment.  But like all mountaineers, the media in those days exhibited little interest in sharing their success stories with the world.  Jody Goins, Vice-President of Lincoln Memorial University at the main campus in Claiborne County, who has close ties to Hoop Creek community, is working together to establish an appropriate exhibit dedicated to those remarkable families who found a way to flourish in difficult times.  

The cultural crossroad between these freed slaves and their poor white counterparts was part of what attracted Alex to John Rice Irwin’s collection.  

He loved to explore this ethnic diversity in a manner that helped people put aside their differences and appreciate their commonalities.  In 1985 he brought an example of that at the Museum’s Christmas gathering.  Karen Lowry Tucker, an accomplished African American violinist with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, joined the Museum’s bluegrass band, in their own version of Joy to the World.  By the way, she’s still playing that same violin today in Washington, D.C. 

On a Friday evening late this winter the Museum added Alex to its distinguished list of Appalachian Heroes.  The program, spearheaded by Lamar Alexander and including Irwin’s daughter Elaine Meyer, granddaughter Lindsey Gallaher – the Museum president – and sons, Will and John, honored Alex’s memory and those of his family and friends who were able to be present in a very special way.  The background involves the famous Carter family.  A.P. Carter, his wife Sarah, and his cousin Maybelle recorded songs in Bristol which are credited with the beginnings of country music – well before Knoxville’s Midtown Merry-go-round debuted and the Grand Ole Opry opened for business in Nashville.  Part of the Carter family repertoire involved songs and guitar licks by a black musician named Leslie Riddle, who grew up near Bristol and whose influence on the Carters helped shape country music. The event honoring Alex as a Hero arranged to have on its program the perfect presenter of Riddle’s story.  Hubby Jenkins, born and raised in Brooklyn of all places, delved into Riddle’s southern roots, following the thread of African American history that wove itself through country blues, ragtime, fiddle and banjo, and traditional jazz.  Hubby began his higher musical education as a busker — a street performer. He developed his guitar and vocal craft on the sidewalks and subway platforms of New York City, performing material by those venerable artists whose work he quickly absorbed. An ambitiously itinerant musician, he took his show on the road, playing the streets, coffee shops, bars, and house parties of cities around the country until making a name for himself with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and becoming an integral part of that Grammy award winning group over the last decade.  After a scintillating solo performance of Riddle’s old-time songs, Hubby Jenkins closed down the show by joining John Alvis and the Museum’s bluegrass musicians on an instrument called the rhythm bones in “Mama Don’t Allow No Guitar Pickin’ Here.”  A good time was had by all!

Author Steve Dean retired as the Creative Service Director of WBIR TV but is perhaps best known as the original producer of the Heartland Series. For years he has served on the board of directors of the Museum of Appalachia, including a term as chairman of the board. 

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